The American Civil War, Elizabeth Van Lew
(1818 - 1900(?))
Edited by: Robert Guisepi
Thank you to
Shotgun's Home of the American Civil War
for this fine work.
The first Union flag to wave over Richmond in four years was
raised in 1865 by this famous and effective Union spy. Born into a
prominent Richmond family, Elizabeth Van Lew returned from her
schooling in Philadelphia as an adamant abolitionist determined to
fight slavery in the bastion of the South. "Slave power," she wrote
in her diary, "is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is
despotic." Outspoken and rebellious, she appeared to her neighbors
to be more than a little eccentric and soon became known as "Crazy
After Virginia seceded and Fort Sumter fell, she used her
reputation for innocuous idiosyncrasy as a shield behind which her
shrewd and resourceful mind devised schemes to abet the Union cause
from within Richmond. Her first target was the Confederate Libby
Prison, which imprisoned Union captives. Pretending to make a merely
humanitarian gesture, Van Lew brought baskets of food, medicine, and
books to the prisoners. What she brought out would have shocked the
guards she learned to charm and deceive.
Not only did Van Lew help some prisoners escape, she also
gleaned valuable information from various sources inside the prison.
Newly arrived Union prisoners secretly recounted the strength and
dispositions of Confederate troops they had seen on their way from
the front to Richmond. Of even more use was information carelessly
conveyed to the "harmless Crazy Bet" by Confederate guards and by
the prison's Confederate commandant, Lieutenant David H.Todd (Mary
Todd Lincoln's half-brother).
She even managed to penetrate the home of President Jefferson
Davis by convincing one of her former servants to secure a position
in the Davis household staff. At first, Van Lew simply mailed the
information she retrieved in letters posted to Federal authorities.
As her work continued, her methods grew more sophisticated. She
devised a code involving words and letters that prisoners would
underline in the books she lent them.
Van Lew also sent her household servants--though she had
freed the family's slaves, many of them chose to stay with
her--northward carrying baskets of farm produce. Each basket held
some eggs, one of which contained encoded messages in place of its
natural contents. She sent her information directly to Benjamin
Butler as well as to Grant through an elaborate courier system. It
was so fast and effective that General Grant often received flowers
still fresh from his spy's large garden. Grant would later say of
her efforts, "You have sent me the most valuable information
received from Richmond during the war."
After the war, President Grant rewarded Van Lew with a job as
postmistress of Richmond, which she held from 1869 to 1877. Although
revered in the North, she was, needless to say, ostracized by her
Richmond neighbors. "No one will walk with us on the street," she
wrote, "no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and
worse as the years roll on." Failing to be reappointed postmistress
under Rutherford B. Hayes, she lived on a annuity from the family of
a Union soldier she bad helped in Libby Prison. She died in
Richmond, probably in 1900.